French table manners are so embedded into the French education. My mother used to tell me, again and again: “Keep your hands on the table, not your elbows. Where is your napkin? Close your mouth when you eat. Don’t talk with a mouthful.” As a mother of two, I found myself repeating the same instructions. You might find yourself in France one day, dining at a nice French restaurant. Knowing French eating etiquette and dining taboos will prove precious.
Simple Do’s and Don’ts from a French Etiquette Expert
Nadine de Rothschild, the French expert in Savoir-Vivre, knows what she is talking about. Born Nadine Lhopitalier, in a modest family, she married Baron Edmond de Rothschild and into one of the oldest and richest dynasties in Europe. She quickly had to master the French etiquette and the former actress became the spokeswoman of good manners. The baroness wrote many manuals on Savoir-Vivre, hosted a TV show on French etiquette, and even opened in 2004 an Academy of International Way of Life in Switzerland, now closed. Follow her precious advice on proper dining manners and you might avoid social embarrassment:
- Keep your voice down in restaurants.
- Bringing food to a dinner in France is rude unless you have agreed to it with your host beforehand.
- Seating etiquette dictates to alternate a man and a woman.
- Sit only after your host is seated.
- Place your napkin on your laps, folded in half, as soon as your host sits down. Not around your neck! During the meal, use the corner of your napkin to gently tap down your mouth, whenever needed, and before drinking. You don’t want to leave a streak on your glass. At the end of the meal, just leave it, unfolded, on the right side of your plate.
- Your hands should always be visible and on the table, but keep your elbows off it.
- Wait until everyone is seated and your host starts to eat to do the same.
- Drink water or wine with your meal, especially if you are at a fine restaurant. Don’t ever ask for a soda! Don’t ever pour water in your wine or ask for ice cubes. It would be sacrilegious.
- Eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand.
- Start with the cutlery the furthest from your plate. As the meal progresses, just move towards your plate. Remember the famous scene from ‘Pretty Woman’ when the concierge explains proper dining etiquette to Julia Roberts.
- Bread should be broken with your hands, not your knife. Don’t bite into it even if you are starving. If you don’t have a small plate for it, place it on the tablecloth next to your plate.
- Never lick your knife, even if it is covered with a delicious sauce.
- In the same way, don’t scrape your plate with bread when you are done. The restaurant or your host probably has a dishwasher to clean the dishes. So leave it alone.
- Always taste your dish before you add salt or pepper.
- Don’t blow on your potage to cool it down. Instead, eat with your spoon starting from the side and moving towards the middle. And don’t make slurping noises. In France, we don’t like loud eating noises.
- Once finished with your dish, place your cutlery diagonally across your plate, not on the tablecloth. The fork should be turned down, not pointing up.
- And remember, as my mother used to say, don’t talk with a mouthful. It is so impolite!
French Are Serious about It
Food is a sensitive issue in France and its savoir-vivre recognized around the world. If you want to play it like Bree van de Kamp from the Desperate Housewifes, follow these simple rules. The dinner will be memorable and you won’t look insulting or impolite:
Never, ever, say “Bon appétit”. You might read the contrary but it is a common mistake, even from French people. Wishing “Bon appétit” to someone means basically “Good digestion”. Not a great way to start a dinner and a kind of insult for your host. So vulgar!
Take bread seriously. French love bread and it is very much part of the dining experience. Choose several types, pain de campagne, baguette, pain aux noix, bought from a boulangerie, not the supermarket. Cut it beforehand and serve it in a nice basket.
I won’t say it enough. It is strictly forbidden to serve yourself wine, especially for a woman. Wait for your host to pour some in your glass, or the waiter if you are dining at a restaurant. Don’t fill up the glass, but stop half way. The wine needs to breathe to reveal all its aroma. Empty your mouth and wipe it delicately with your napkin before taking a sip. You don’t want to leave a distasteful mark on your glass.
Cutting your salad with your knife is a big no-no in France and a very ancient one. The cutlery was in the past in silver (only in high society of course). The vinegar used in the salad dressing would oxidise the metal. Nowadays, knifes are made of stainless steel but the habit remained. Use your fork to neatly fold a lettuce leaf then eat it as elegantly as possible. Respect this rule. In the same manner, cutting your pasta or your omelette is a huge faux-pas.
Don’t ever use foie gras as a spread. This is not pâté or Nutella. Don’t smear it all over your bread. Be respectful with this noble product. Instead cut a bit, place it on a piece of bread and enjoy.
If you love mussels, you might already know the proper way to eat them. Forget about your fork. You are allowed to use your hands. For this time! Take an empty shell and use it to catch the delicate mussel in another shell. So easy. A good restaurant or host will provide a rince-doigt to clean your fingers so don’t worry. Seize the moment!
Cheese is served after the main dish and before dessert. Don’t add crackers or grapes to the platter. A perfect cheese platter should include one blue cheese (Roquefort), one hard cheese (Comté or Gruyère), one goat cheese, one soft cheese (Camembert or Brie). Forks are not permitted, only a clean knife. And remember. Don’t have another helping!
For the Superstitious Ones
Being 13 at the dinner table brings misfortune so avoid it at all costs. This ancient superstition comes from the Bible. At the Last Supper, Jesus and his 12 apostles added up to 13 guests around the table. That day, after the meal, Judas betrayed Jesus, who was then caught and crucified. The superstition is still vivid even if many don’t know where it comes from. So count well before you make your invitation list!
Placing the bread upside down promises ill omen. In the Middle-Age, when the executioner had a job to do (meaning an execution to carry out) and had no time to get his daily bread, the baker would reserve one by turning it upside down on his stall. So unless you want to execute someone or wish one’s death, just don’t do it.
Spilling salt on the table might not bring misfortune but spare yourself the trouble. Salt was used in the Antiquity as a currency. It was precious. In the Middle-Age, salt was taxed and therefore became rare. It was also called the white gold. To avoid any conflict, preserve friendship and relationships, the custom was to place the salt shaker in front or near the person that needed it, and not give it hand from hand. So imagine knocking down the salt shaker on the table! Throwing three pinches of salt over your left shoulder to ward off the bad spell is purely superstitious. Just be discreet if you do it. You never know.
Don’t cross two knifes or a knife and a fork on the dinner table. Bad luck might happen as it represents Jesus on the cross.
Dining in France is a bonding experience. So now you know how to make the most out of it without looking foolish, vulgar or bringing bad luck onto yourself. Bon appétit! Whoops!
Pack Your Bags
France is beautiful in any season. With two coastlines, two high mountainous chains (the Alps and the Pyrenees), lovely meadows, beautiful forests, lakes and more historical sights that you can count, every one will find something to do, visit and enjoy.
Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Orly (ORY) are the two main airports serving Paris, both with public transport links into the city. Many other major cities have flights from and to European cities.
Gare du Nord, the north rail station, is one of the busiest in Europe and welcomes arrivals from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Getting around by public transport is easy and fast. The High Speed Train (TGV) system covers most of France. Renting a car will allow you to go to all places. For a tighter budget, buses are also a good and safe option.